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Front-line workers seeing more toxic additives as B.C.'s opioid emergency enters year four

A naloxone anti-overdose kit is shown in Vancouver on Feb. 10, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Three years after the B.C. government declared a public health emergency in response to record drug overdose numbers, those on the front-lines of the crisis are facing a rising challenge.

On Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside — the epicentre of the crisis — Illegal opiates like heroin and fentanyl are increasingly being cut with toxic additives, making it more difficult for volunteers and emergency workers to reverse overdoses.

The additives include tranquillizers known as benzodiazepines or benzos, which are commonly prescribed as Valium and Xanax, and a group of sedatives known as barbiturates.

“It makes the overdoses a lot worse,” says Clint Belcher, a peer support worker with the Overdose Prevention Society. “The Narcan only works on opioids, it doesn’t take the benzos out,” he says.

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“We can bring them back, but they’re still a lot of times knocked out and unresponsive… and when the Narcan wears off, there’s the chance of them slipping back into an overdose. So it’s constant checking on the people who are sleeping,” Belcher adds.

Other frontline workers say while these additives have been a problem for years, it seems to have ramped up in recent weeks.

“The drug supply is just becoming more and more contaminated with all sorts of illicit substances… stranger and stranger additives that are becoming harder to test for and understand what’s going on,” says Chris Dickinson with Vancouver Coastal Health’s Overdose Outreach Team.

Illegal opioids themselves are also getting more dangerous. The BC Coroner’s Service notes that of the 90 suspected drug overdose deaths in January 2019, 13 were linked to carfentanil.

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In a statement marking three years since the emergency was declared, Mental Health and Addictions Minister Judy Darcy acknowledges “the illegal drug supply has become increasingly toxic.”

“There is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution to this crisis, she adds. “That’s why we will continue to add more tools to our toolbox to save more lives.”

Street Saviors Outreach Society founder Ryan Vena says the legalization or decriminalization of the opioids would be “one of the big steps” towards lowering the stigma of drug use, and preventing more deaths. Dickinson agrees.

“There probably is a correlation between drugs remaining illegal, and the potency of them increasing over time,” he says.